Big-play Union tops Port Allegany, advances to PIAA Class A football final

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Saturday, December 3, 2022 | 1:07 AM


CLARION — For the second consecutive week, the Union Scotties defense came up with big plays when needed.

The Scotties forced four turnovers, including a fumble return for a touchdown, to defeat Port Allegany, 46-36, in the PIAA Class A semifinals at PennWest Clarion’s Memorial Stadium on Friday night.

It is the first trip to the football state championship for Union (12-3) and also the first 12-win season in program history.

But for coach Kim Niedbala, it’s the second straight trip to the state championship. “Coach Née” won the state title as an assistant under Bob Palko at Mt. Lebanon last year. Friday, coaching on the field where he played in college, he again led his team to a championship appearance.

“It’s interesting just the whole way that the script has worked out for me,” Niedbala said. “But it’s not about me. It’s about the kids. It’s about the school. It’s about the community. I’m happy and excited for them.”

Union will play Steelton-Highspire (13-1), a 28-21 victor over Canton, in the PIAA championship at 1 p.m. Thursday at Cumberland Valley.

The Union defense came up big late, but had to fight all night against Port Allegany’s ball-control offense. Ten of the Gator’s 11 possessions ended in Scotties territory, but four ended without points on the scoreboard.

Port Allegany (12-2) took the opening kickoff and drove right down the field, with Blaine Moses capping off an 11-play drive with a 2-yard touchdown run. The extra point hit off of the left upright to make the score 6-0.

Union responded with a 12-play drive. On the second play of the second quarter, on fourth-and-goal from the 5-ard line, Braylon Thomas found Dayne Johnke in the middle of the end zone to tie the score at 6-6.

The first quarter took just 17 minutes of real time.

Port Allegany drove deep again into Scotties territory, but Maddox Thompson recovered a Moses fumble at the 28-yard line to end the threat.

Union methodically worked down the field and got near the red zone when Thomas was awkwardly tackled going out-of-bounds. He was helped to the sideline. On the very next play, Matt Stanley took a wildcat snap and ran 32 yards down the sideline to give Union a 12-6 lead, which the Scotties would not relinquish.

“We’ve used both Stanley and Mike Gunn in the wildcat exclusively this year,” Niedbala said. “We’ve used all three of them, just Braylon is the one throws the ball much more and has the stats. We work on that every week, so we’re comfortable, we knew what we were going to go to once he went out.”

Another Gators drive stalled just outside of the red zone, and Union took over with 2:34 remaining in the first half.

With Thomas still on the sideline and no timeouts remaining, Union looked content to just run out the clock. However, Stanley ran for back-to-back first downs out of the wildcat. After a spike to stop the clock with 15 seconds remaining in the half, Union reached the Port Allegany 31.

That’s when the fourth different quarterback took a snap for the Scotties. After an incomplete pass forced a fourth down, Kaden Fisher fired a ball to the back of the end zone on the final play of the half. Johnke snagged it, tip-toeing the back line, for the Union touchdown as time expired, giving the Scotties a 20-6 lead at the break.

“We were saying we’d be good if we could go in down one score,” Port Allegany coach Justin Bienkowski said. “Everybody knew it was coming (on the last play). It’s not anybody’s fault, it just didn’t go our way. They made a better play.”

“Fish(er) works during every warm-up, he’s out there throwing,” Niedbala said. “He finally got to throw a pass today.”

“Fish threw it up, it was a moon-shot,” Johnke explained. “I looked up and put my hands out. Next thing I know it’s in my hands. Two feet inbounds, touchdown.”

Union made it a fourth straight possession with a touchdown to start the second half. Another 10-play drive got the Scotties into the red zone. After a couple of negative plays, Union found the end zone for the third time on a fourth down, this time on 21-yard pass from Thomas to Thompson. Stanley’s conversion run made it 28-6.

Port Allegany finally got back on the board on the first play of the fourth quarter with a 5-yard Peyton Stiles touchdown run on a reverse. The conversion made it a 28-14 score.

That was the first of four Gators touchdowns in the fourth quarter. Port Allegany never attempted a punt in the game.

“Our guys never quit,” Bienkowski said. “Our guys had every reason to roll over and say die.”

Two plays later, Thomas was intercepted by Noah Archer near midfield. After a pair of first downs on elusive plays by Evens in the backfield, momentum appeared to be fully on the Port Allegany sideline with just under 10 minutes to play.

Then, Union’s big-play defense showed up again.

Linebacker Kaden Fisher blitzed off of the end and hit the Port Allegany quarterback right as he went to throw. Fisher then picked up the loose ball and ran it 65 yards for a touchdown.

“The whole time (earlier in the series) I’m coming full speed, but couldn’t break down,” Fisher said. “But that play, I broke down and got it done.”

Union had a pair of defensive touchdowns in the second half of the WPIAL championship last week. The Scotties have now forced 19 turnovers in their five playoff games.

“We’ve been sticking to their assignments,” Fisher said. “Everybody’s been going full speed and getting pressure.”

Union got another turnover on the ensuing kickoff with a fumble recovery in Gators territory. Mike Gunn ran for a touchdown on the next play to extend the Scotties’ lead to 40-14.

Gunn would later score another long touchdown run on a one-play drive.

“We tried to minimize splash plays, but we didn’t,” Bienkowski said, “That’s what we were fearful of this week. We knew their athleticism and we knew how dynamic they were.”

Port Allegany never gave up, however. The Gators effectively moved the ball down the field, with the help of many Union penalties as well, to score multiple fourth quarter touchdowns. Noah Archer was the main recipient, catching 15 passes in the game for 136 yards, including a 13-yard touchdown.

“We run our tempo offense a lot in practice,” Bienkowski said. “We were able to get back in the game a little bit. We just didn’t do enough to get a win.”

Niedbala was pleased with the defensive scores, but not as much with the inability to close the game out more easily.

“We were up 40-14, and we let them get back in there,” Niedbala said. “I don’t know if it was ever really ‘danger’ but when you have a team down like that, you can’t take bad penalties. You have to close things out, you have to make them drive the field, and we gave up some big plays defensively that we haven’t given up in a while.”

Gunn led the offense with 95 yards on 10 carries (he had six total carries in the four WPIAL playoff games) and a pair of touchdowns. Stanley added 89 yards on 12 carries, while Thomas totaled 126 yards in the air and on the ground.

Union, the former No. 10 seed in the WPIAL playoffs, now has one more step to take in the Cinderella glass slipper to achieve the improbable. A win against Steel-High next week would mean the first PIAA football championship in Lawrence County history.

Thinking about that matchup with the Steamrollers will have to wait, at least for a day.

“I haven’t watched one ounce of film on them all year,” Niedbala said, “so I have no idea what they’re about. They’ve been the No. 1 team all year. We’ll worry about that tomorrow.”

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